Ancient Egyptian Bread and Beer for World Bread Day

By Dr Brit Asmussen

Let’s celebrate World Bread Day with a peek inside the Queensland Museum’s Antiquities collections!

Celebrating World Bread Day

For millennia, bread has held an important place in many cultures. World Bread Day is an international observance celebrated on October 16 dedicated to this culinary staple, enjoyed by communities around the world and throughout history.

Ancient Egyptian bread in the Queensland Museum collection

Food can tell an archaeologist a lot about a society and bread is no exception. The Queensland Museum is fortunate enough to house several samples of ancient Egyptian bread in its collection. This is exciting, you can imagine, samples are relatively rare, with an estimate of just a few hundred examples in museum collections globally. Museum records suggest that our specimens were purchased from an antiquities dealer in Egypt in the late 1800’s, and were said to be from ‘a tomb at Thebes’ and thought to date to the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BCE).

Bread had important religious significance in Ancient Egypt and the location of this find suggests that it may have been an offering to the Gods or a provision for the deceased in the afterlife. Ancient insects also enjoyed eating this bread – as evidenced by the small holes on the surface! The Queensland Museum examples are not alone in this, however, as similar insect eaten bread cakes can be seen in the British Museum collections, which even contain remnants of the insects themselves.  

  Bread cakes from Ancient Egypt (Image: Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington).    

Bread in the ancient Egyptian diet

Bread was a key staple in the Ancient Egyptian diet, and all members of society ate bread. it was consumed by the wealthy and the poor alike – from labourers to pharaohs. Meals were considered incomplete unless bread was also consumed, and as such, its preparation was an important part of life for people from small households to temples. As it is today, baking bread was an art in ancient Egypt with variations in the shape and appearance: they could be baked in cylindrical bread moulds, or hand shaped into triangles, rectangles or small disks, such as those in the Queensland Museum Collection.

Analysis of the Queensland Museum breads by Dr Andrew Fairbairn (Professor of Archaeology, The University of Queensland, Australia) confirmed they too, were made of wheat grains, including emmer wheat. Both emmer and barley grains are commonly identified in breads from Ancient Egypt, as they were the most important crops. Dates, figs and coriander seeds were sometimes added to bread for additional flavour. 

Sample of ancient Egyptian wheat and barley (Image: Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington).

Beer to complement the bread

Beer was a perfect complement to bread in ancient Egypt and it was also consumed daily.  Evidence for beer production in Egypt dates back to the Predynastic period (c. 5500-3100 BCE), and it is likely that brewing occurred before this. The Queensland Museum collection contains a handmade ovoid shaped terracotta beer jar from Ancient Egypt. The makers impressions can be seen clearly on the outside of the vessel from when it was being shaped. Our records suggest it was “recovered from excavations near the Great Pyramid” of Khufu, at Giza, dating to the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-1281 BCE). Labourers, who built the pyramids of Giza, were provided with a daily ration of beer and bread, in compensation for labour.

Beer was also a common mortuary and divine offering. Analyses of ancient beer residues on vessels such as this one, reveal that a malted grain such as wheat or barley may have been used. People have baked bread for thousands of years perfecting and adapting their recipes, a resurgence we have seen while people have more spare time at home over pandemic lockdown. Perhaps this October 16th you can celebrate the enduring nature of bread through own baking or eating!

  Terracotta beer jar, from Ancient Egypt (Image: Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington).

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